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Workplace Mobbing in Academe

Summer Pleasures, Autumn Toil

Kenneth Westhues, Department of Sociology University of Waterloo

(Originally published in FAUW Forum, December 1993; published on the web, 2007, as part of the Self-study and Documents on "the Westhues Case.")

Two great sighs of relief heard were heard across campus this summer. One was for the out-of-court settlement of the Edmonds case, and Edmonds' restoration to his tenured position in the Math Faculty. The other was for the eleventh-hour agreement on salaries between the UW administration and FAUW's negotiating team.

Congratulations are in order on all sides. As late as the FAUW General Meeting on July 28, it appeared that the new academic year would commence with both these issues unresolved. The entire UW community can be glad that the appearance was deceiving.

To the extent that a certain momentum has now been gained toward a more respectful, collegial, constructive campus climate, we need to keep it up. The following paragraphs propose two practical and complementary ways of doing this.

Policy Reform

First, we need to rewrite some of the policies that govern our collective life. In light of the arbitrator's ruling last spring with respect to the Edmonds case, Policy 53 probably needs to include a line that states specifically: "This policy applies also to cases where the university claims a professor has voluntarily resigned, but the professor does not agree."

We need a new policy, moreover, on what to do when an administrator (dean or chair) and a professor cannot agree on which courses the professor ought to teach. The current policy appears to be, as Math Dean Jack Kalbfleisch put it in a court document two years ago, that "the Department Chair is responsible for the assignment of teaching duties...." The chair takes note of a professor's preferences and expertise, but in the final analysis, gives the professor an order which the latter is obliged to carry out. The chair is assumed to have a broader understanding of the needs of the various programs, and is therefore allowed to dictate, if necessary, the components of a professor's teaching load. The policy is hierarchical and bureaucratic: tenure may guarantee job security, but the university gets to specify in what the job pedagogically consists.

Not only the Edmonds case but a number of others festering in disparate corners of campus suggest that UW needs a better policy than this. No chair is infallible. A chair's definition of departmental or program needs is inevitably skewed by his or her own preferences and biases. The necessary balance between a department's general interests and a professor's personal interests is best achieved not by giving ultimate authority to the chair or dean, but by entrusting any serious dispute in this regard to an independent third party that both of the parties in conflict regard as fair—a committee of three members, for instance, one chosen by the dean or chair, a second by the professor, and the third by the first two members.

Our policy in this regard matters a great deal, since our best professors are deeply invested in the courses they teach, and a rash reassignment can be devastating to their academic and personal well-being. By no means do I propose that a professor should automatically have his or her way with respect to course assignments. But neither should the chair. In any case of serious dispute, our policy should provide avenues by which the two parties can resolve their differences, instead of granting one party in principle the upper hand. Our present policy backs a dissenting professor into a corner, and invites just the kind of rancorous conflict that has proven so costly in the Edmonds case.

Beyond Policy

The second way for us to build upon whatever momentum we have going for us now is to continue building personal, informal relationships of mutual trust and respect between people with conflicting interests on our campus: junior and senior faculty, for instance, students and faculty, faculty and staff, or faculty and administrators.

As one initiative toward this end, the FAUW board undertook last July 15, to host a barbecue for the university's senior administrators and their spouses or guests. John and Roberta North volunteered their home for the occasion, and nearly all the notables of Needles Hall showed up. The evening was relaxed, gracious and low-key; much of the banter was far removed from campus politics. In my view, it was a good thing to do, not in order to try to ingratiate ourselves or manipulate the "other side," but as a means of recognizing and celebrating the common academic and human purposes that join professors divided by their roles in the university structure.

In an interview reported in the spring UW Alumni Magazine, Jim Downey attributed the easing of tensions on the New Brunswick campus after his arrival there to a willingness he shared with the union leadership not to go entirely by the book: "We wouldn't be too literal and fundamental about the collective agreement.... One of the important things, clearly, is to identify the issues early; to find wherever you can the informal, collegial resolution."

Given the breakdown of trust in recent years on our campus (as elsewhere in our society), faculty here are appropriately on guard against being suckered by sweet-talking administrators. I myself reacted with suspicion to Downey's emphasis, in an interview with the Laurier News last February, on what he called the "pastoral-care aspects" of the role of a university president. The metaphor of pastor and flock does not connote the dialogic, countervailing power, indeed the fundamental equality, that ought to characterize relations in a university.

Yet fundamentally, Downey is right. No policies or procedures, however cleverly devised or rigorously followed, will make UW a university worthy of ourselves and our students. Not even legal certification and a collective agreement would do that, however desirable these may be in some respects. At the same time as we formulate the best rules we can, we have to cultivate among ourselves the social bonds that transcend rules. Only in this way can our lofty educational purposes be adequately served.